The Philharmonic is out of its hall this year. It doesn't pack light.

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The Philharmonic is out of its hall this year. It doesn't pack light.
Workers pack up instruments following a performance by the New York Philharmonic at the Rose Theater in New York, Sept. 19, 2021. With David Geffen Hall under renovation, the orchestra — and eight of its cellos, six double basses, six timpani and two grand pianos — must move from hall to hall. Hilary Swift/The New York Times.

by Adam Nagourney

NEW YORK, NY.- The New York Philharmonic had just finished a 90-minute concert, and backstage at Alice Tully Hall, Lawrence Tarlow, its principal librarian, went quickly to work, filing stacks of sheet music of works by Beethoven, Copland, Anna Clyne and George Walker into four trunks, each nearly as tall as Tarlow himself, ready to be loaded on a truck. Stagehands scurried around packing up cellos, basses, timpani, pianos and other equipment.

With the Philharmonic’s home, David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, in the midst of a $550 million renovation, the orchestra is plunging into its new season as an orchestra without a hall of its own. With some good-natured grumbling — “It’s like being on a tour for an entire concert season,” said Tarlow, who is beginning his 37th season at the Philharmonic — the orchestra cleared out of Alice Tully, at Lincoln Center, and prepared to head to its next temporary home: the Rose Theater, a few blocks south.

“We are nomads,” Jaap van Zweden, the orchestra’s music director, said a few days later as he stood in his (temporary) dressing room at the Rose. “You always have to adjust. It’s like you are putting a new coat on, and you never know how it’s going to fit.

“Just go in and that’s it,” van Zweden said. “That’s it!”

Were it that simple. This 2021-22 season is shaping up as a militarylike exercise of logistics, dexterity and scheduling. For each move, over the course of 86 concerts in four main locations, six crew members will have to pack up to 30 cases of instruments and equipment and load them into a 24-foot-long truck for hauls that will range from five blocks (from Tully to the Rose) to 3 miles (Riverside Church) and later in the season to its old home, Carnegie Hall.

The cargo includes eight cellos, six double basses and six timpani. A specialized contractor from Steinway & Sons has been hired to carefully transport two concert grands. Musicians who play smaller instruments will move them themselves. The mighty Philharmonic is squeezing into halls built for smaller ensembles as it shoehorns its own performance schedule into the open windows it could find in the long-set schedules of other venues.

Even for an orchestra that has toured the world — playing over the years in North and South America, Europe and Asia, with stops in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Russia; India; Australia; North Korea; and Stillwater, Oklahoma — being always on the road at home is “irksome,” as Tarlow put it.

“A massive undertaking,” is how Deborah Borda, president of the Philharmonic, described the season after leading a rooftop-to-lobby tour of the Geffen Hall construction site. “It’s logistics. It’s programs. It involves moving things. It involves the library. It involves telling people, ‘Next week, the rehearsal is at 10 on a Wednesday instead of a Tuesday. And don’t go to Tully Hall; go to the Rose Theater.’”

Geffen Hall has been stripped to its bones as part of the renovation project, the orchestra displaced by a crew of 350 construction workers until, hopefully, October 2022. For the next 12 months, the Philharmonic will be bouncing from stage to stage around New York.

The improvised, learn-as-you-go nature of the adventure could be seen in the creased sheet of paper, fluttering in the wind last week, taped on a door five floors below the Rose Theater on West 60th Street. “New York Philharmonic: STAGE DOOR.”

The Philharmonic had initially hoped to keep one piano at Tully and the other at Rose to avoid the complications of moving two pianos every few weeks. That did not work.

“We were going to tell our soloists, who usually get to choose an instrument, that given the situation we have a single instrument for you — we hope you’ll understand,” said Justin Brown, vice president for production and venues at the Philharmonic. “They didn’t understand. They wanted two instruments.”

Everyone seems resigned to the fact that logistically, at least, the Philharmonic is in for another complicated season. But after more than a year where it could not play indoors at all, and with the promise of the state-of-the-art renovation that would finally address the notorious acoustical deficiencies of the orchestra’s old home, no one seems overly disturbed.

Borda said this had been difficult for the whole organization but particularly for musicians. Orchestra members walked into the Rose, instruments in hand, to find their names on tables, delineating their assigned space for the next few days. But the dress code has been relaxed: Ties and tails are no longer required, even on opening night.

“A musician comes every day to work,” Borda said. “They sit on the same place on the stage. Now every week they go to a different hall. They unpack on tables that we set up for them.”

The backstage area at the old Geffen was always a “little junky,” said Carter Brey, principal cellist for the Philharmonic. But there were lockers to store instruments and belongings (cellists had two lockers), and a place to have a meal or sneak a nap before the show. “Just like a gym,” Brey said.

It will be a while before orchestra members have assigned lockers again. The complications of this new existence were obvious at the Tully as an entire symphony orchestra and stagehands maneuvered through narrow corridors coming on and off the stage.

“It’s very, very close back there,” Brey said. “It’s a chamber music hall.”

Sara Griffin, a music librarian, was, like Tarlow, trying to keep track of orchestral parts and scores that are no longer housed at Geffen Hall. “We are never rehearsing where our collection is, where our copiers are,” she said.

But Griffin was pleasantly surprised after packing up the music trunks Sunday at the Tully to find they made it to the Rose a few days later. Well, three of them; a fourth was sent back to temporary storage over at the Rose, where the orchestra parts and scores will be stored until Geffen Hall reopens. The orchestra’s considerable archive, including scores marked by Mahler, are already permanently stored at the Rose.

There are financial implications in this wandering season for the Philharmonic, after a tough year when the pandemic forced it to lay off 40% of its staff. The Tully and Rose auditoriums are significantly smaller than the Geffen, which had 2,730 seats in its old configuration. Fewer seats to sell means a $6 million drop in ticket revenue, Borda said.

Then there is the challenge of trying to adjust to the acoustics of four new venues. “Every hall has its own funny, peculiar acoustic signature,” said Brey. “And even a hall like Carnegie Hall, because we don’t play there regularly, I always feel we need a couple of hours playing in there.”

That was apparent when the orchestra left Tully and settled in for its second round of concerts at the Rose. “This hall,” van Zweden said after finishing a run-through of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Yefim Bronfman as the soloist at the final dress rehearsal before Thursday night’s performance, “my instinct tells me it’s going to be a little dry.”

The Philharmonic is accustomed to doing world tours, and Tarlow said the lessons from those global travels applied even to a trip of five blocks: Always bring along extra lights; backstage is dark. Don’t forget extension cords. And pencil sharpeners.

But after this past year, the disruptions seem a small price to pay to be able to finally play to full houses of fans. “Challenges, challenges,” Joseph Faretta, the orchestra’s stage representative, said as crews and musicians rushed to clear out Tully to make way for the New York Film Festival. “But this whole year has been one.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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